Centuries ago, one of the first Christians in the Roman Empire to live in the province of Egypt wrote a letter to an acquaintance on papyrus—a kind of thick form of paper used in ancient times.
This letter survived for hundreds of years, eventually making its way into the papyrus collection of the University of Basel, Switzerland, after being acquired on the antiquities market in 1899. Now, Sabine Huebner, a professor of ancient history from the university, has dated the letter to around 230 A.D. This makes it the oldest known Christian documentary evidence from Roman Egypt, and indeed the oldest Christian letter found, to date, anywhere in the world.
According to Huebner’s new book Papyri and the Social World of the New Testament, the letter provides fascinating insights into the day-to-day lives of some of the earliest adherents to Christianity.
“The significance of this papyrus lies in the fact that it is the oldest authentic handwriting of a Christian, an original from 1800 years ago,” Huebner told Newsweek. “We have, of course, the letters of the apostle Paul from the first century A.D. and other writings from church fathers of the second century, but here we don’t have the originals, just later copies. This Basel letter is the first handwriting of a Christian.”
The letter was written by a man named Arrianus to his brother Paulus. Most of the content revolves around family matters and everyday activities. The telltale sign that this letter was written by a Christian, according to Huebner, is the use of the phrase “I pray that you fare well in the Lord.”
“The use of this abbreviation—known as a “nomen sacrum” in this context—leaves no doubt about the Christian beliefs of the letter writer,” Huebner said in a statement. “It is an exclusively Christian formula that we are familiar with from New Testament manuscripts. [Furthermore,] Paulus was an extremely rare name at that time and we may deduce that the parents mentioned in the letter were Christians and had named their son after the apostle as early as 200 A.D.”
Dating the letter and determining its origin took some serious detective work, according to Huebner.
“The provenance of the papyrus was unknown until recently, but thanks to an extensive analysis I was able to assign the papyrus to Theadelphia, a Roman village in central Egypt,” Huebner told Newsweek. “The backside of the papyrus letter gave the clue since the business note scribbled on it showed us that it belonged to the largest papyrus archive of Roman times—the so-called Heroninus archive that comprises more than 1,000 documents and deals with the management of an enormous estate.”
This gave Huebner a provenance—the Heroninus archive was found in Theadelphia—and an approximate date, because the archive stretches over several decades of the third century and comes to an end around 270 A.D.
“The persons named in the Basel letter—Arrianus, Paulus, and Herakleides—also show up in other papyri from the Heroninus archive, and from one of these documents we learn than Herakleides was a high priest of his city and member of the city council in 239 A.D.,” she said. “That can only mean that the Basel letter was written well before 239 A.D. since Arrianus says in this letter that Herakleides was just nominated to the city council.”
The letter indicates then the Arrianus and Paulus were the educated sons of a member of the local elite, casting new light on the status of Christians in this time and place.
“[The letter] tells us that Christianity had spread to the Egyptian hinterland by the 230s or even well before—since already the brothers’ parents seem to have been Christians because they named one of their sons Paulus. But [it also tells us] that ordinary Christians managed to combine their faith with the life of a member of the local gentry, with political offices—where they surely came into contact with the imperial [pagan] cult—and with the management of large estates, etc.”